In the Trial

The Typing Errors Question

The 1976 release to Alger Hiss of approximately 40,000 pages of documents previously held in sealed FBI, Department of Justice, State Department and CIA files was a major step forward in clarifying underlying Hiss case issues. It allowed Hiss two years later to return to court and ask for a writ of error coram nobis – a setting aside of his guilty verdict because of prosecutorial misconduct. This extract from Hiss’s 1978 coram nobis brief outlines what the released FBI files said about whether Priscilla Hiss had typed the Baltimore Documents.

In his closing statement at the second trial, Prosecutor Thomas Murphy called upon the jury to consider a factual issue which, he had been advised by his own experts, could not be determined by an examination of the documents.

On July 8, 1949, immediately after the close of the first trial [which had ended in a hung verdict], Frederick Gaffney, one of the jurors in the case [who had voted to convict], appeared in Murphy’s office to discuss the reaction of the jurors to the case presented by the government. He suggested that another juror believed that there were several typing errors in one of the Hiss Standards that also appeared in the Baltimore Documents, and had attempted without success to convince the minority of the jurors, who held out for acquittal, that this was relevant evidence that Priscilla Hiss had typed both documents.

This theory was submitted to the laboratory of the FBI, which submitted a report “indicating that it would be impossible for an expert to testify to the fact that because of the similar or common errors, it followed that Priscilla Hiss actually typed the questioned documents.” Murphy requested a review of those common errors, stating that “although he probably will not be able to use this information on the government’s case-in-chief, he might be able to point it out in summation.”

No testimony was submitted on this subject in the second trial, presumably in deference to the laboratory’s decision that it would be impossible for an expert to so testify. Nevertheless, Murphy did in fact argue the matter to the jury. He said:

In going over the documents I notice some common typing errors. When you get these documents inside, these Baltimore documents and the standards [letters Priscilla Hiss acknowledged typing in the 1930s], you know the Mercy letter and the Timmy Hobson thing, look for similarity of mistakes, and I call to your attention the following combinations “r” for “i,” “f” for “g,” “f” for “d” and you will see them. You will see the same mistakes on the standards, on the Mercy Hospital letter and on the Timmy Hobson letter, the same characteristics as you do on the Baltimore exhibits.

It was improper for Murphy to have made this argument, submitting to a jury of laymen a question which his own typewriting experts had said they could not answer. It was an invitation to guess at conclusions which, as he knew, his own experts could not reach.

One of the FBI memos released to Alger Hiss under the Freedom of Information Act prefigured the strategy Prosecutor Thomas Murphy would adopt when giving his summation at the second trial.